Missoula-based director and animator Andy Smetanka is premiering a tight new version of his new film, And We Were Young this Friday, Veterans Day, November 11. The film consists of Smetanka's handmade, silhouette animation and an original score by composer Jason Staczek. It follows the story of American soldiers in World War I.
These Missoula showing comes as the film begins its world tour with showings in Seattle and in Greece soon. Smetanka, who's collaborated with Guy Madden, Isabella Rosselini, the Decemberists among others, sat down with us to answer a few questions.
Missoula Independent: What should people expect from And We Were Young?
Andy Smetanka: A startlingly fresh cinematic experience: silhouette-animation World War One history with NOT ONE of the typical trappings of documentary. Brutal, beautiful, with an extraordinary musical score. Man, did I luck out in choosing composer Jason Staczek.
Indy: What inspired you to make the huge investment of time and energy and dollars, telling the story of American soldiers in the first world war?
AS: I used to go through malarial Great War phases, snapping up any new book on the subject I could find. Finishing the movie has mostly cured that obsession, but at no point in the three years I spent making it was I very far from a memoir, a general history or a big picture book for inspiration, often all open at the same time. But books about the American experience in WWI are relatively few in comparison to, for example, books about the British experience (fiction and nonfiction), general histories, volumes of poetry, etc. I'm not a big fan of American war lit; I can't stand John Dos Passos and his overegged "dialect" writing (though interestingly, I did find a novel that was privately printed in Missoula and reads like Dos Passos on dialect crack), Hemingway was in the wrong country, poetry was only of limited use. Overall there just aren't as many towering achievements in American literature on the subject. What really attracts me in WWI nonfiction is correspondence, personal anecdote and extensive quotations. American movies, too, have never paid much attention to WWI, either: It's worth noting that Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front deals with the German experience, already well-known to Americans from the bestselling novel. Despite the shadow it still casts over contemporary geography and politics, the war itself seems too distant, the circumstances of America's involvement too vague compared to Pearl Harbor, for Americans to care about. For my own part, I was getting tired of making music videos (at least half the time, the band would break up while I was still working on their video) and casting about for a feature idea, and I remember exactly where I was at what I was doing when the idea really took hold: reading an oral history on a park bench outside Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, thinking "hey, I bet I could animate that little anecdote...and that one...and that one..."
Indy: What did you learn about yourself in that process?
AS: I learned it was easier to get up at 4 AM to work animation than do it in the evening. I learned a lot about my personal creative cycle, the fortnights of extreme productivity followed by weekends of paralyzing but short-lived depression. I learned that I can make almost anything I set my mind to as long as I can find a way to cope with feeling a long way from done most of the time. I like finishing things, not working on them.
People often remark that I must be an extremely patient person to bother with such a labor-intensive way to create moving images. My standard comeback is that animation is the ONLY thing I have patience for, but in fact I'm not even a very patient animator. What I really like is cutting things out of paper—I never get tired of that. The animation is almost an afterthought. I don't think of myself as being a control-freak, but as a filmmaker my specialties/grand passions are stop-motion and time-lapse, both of which (for me) derive ultimately from complete choice and control over every shutter release. In terms of outdated technology and modes of storytelling, I've shot backwards in time even farther than my cinematic idol Guy Maddin, which might see as a contrarian's response to contemporary film, the dispiriting trend toward digital video, "films" with no film, just zeroes and ones floating around in some chip-sized whatsit. But "relic" is probably the better term for what I've become. I love finding value in discarded things, learning discarded skills. By setting my time machine back to Year Zero for feature animation, and then discarding almost every stock feature of modern documentary (talking heads, stock footage, traditional narration, names, dates and places), I think I managed to make something both archaic and ultra-contemporary by skipping over most cinematic developments of the intervening nine decades.
Indy: For somebody not familiar with how you work, talk about the steps that go into shooting a single scene.
AS: Easy. I decide what to shoot and then make it out of paper. Almost every image on the screen in And We Were Young originally fit into a space the size of a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper. The more time I put into preparing the paper figures and backgrounds, the more options I eventually have in combining them onscreen and the less time I need to spend stopping to make new pieces. There were eight-hour days in the beginning where I did nothing but cut out barbed wire, or machine guns, or puffs of poison gas.
After preparing these scenes in paper, I take the pieces and arrange them on my light table, a found-lumber frame with three or four horizontal planes of glass, lit from below, with the camera mounted to shoot straight downward. Once the scene is framed for the camera (Soviet-manufactured Super 8, circa 1987) it's all click, move the piece a little, click, move it again, etc. Each second of the movie is composed of 20 individual shots, each minute 1200. Some of the animation required intense concentration, some of it was mindless but still took forever. Fact: I rarely drink alcohol while animating.
Indy: What's on your plate as an animator right now?
AS: Once I've got these Crystal screenings out of the way, the first thing I need to do is finish some kitty-cat silhouette scenes I've been working on for a friend's website. I should probably also add a few more shots of cholera-plagued 1880s London to what I've made for another friend's documentary; he's not expecting more but I'd like to surprise him, especially since he arranged for me to get paid in American (and not Canadian) dollars. I've been asked to contribute some animated sequences to a Swedish documentary about the '80s hardcore band Anti Cimex—not a paid proposition (although I'll be pushing for a well-you-better-pass-the-damn-hat plane ticket to the Gothenburg premiere!), but a natural fit for a number of reasons and a project I'm looking forward to, later rather than sooner. I have a long list of silhouette shorts I'd still like to make someday, and I'm always mulling over new feature ideas that will prevent that from happening. Top of my list for early 2017 is finishing the animated sequences for a Missoula documentary, A Place (Sort Of). I'll just give you two tidbits: The Bloody History of Hellgate Canyon, and Why Jerry Garcia Never Came Back to Missoula.
Three showings of the film will happen at 5:00, 7:00 and 9:00 PM at Missoula's Crystal Theater )(515 S. Higgins) and are free to veterans. More information here.